Friday, 28 March 2014

Review: Orange is the New Black: My Time in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Book cover of Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Before I even start writing this review, let me just mention here that my day-job very heavily revolves around this area. I rehabilitate those released from prison who may need assistance with relearning how to function in society. I don't think it's affected this review but I'm not usually one for keeping my opinions to myself...

Plot summary: With her career, live-in boyfriend and loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the rebellious young woman who got mixed up with drug runners and delivered a suitcase of drug money to Europe over a decade ago. But when she least expects it, her reckless past catches up with her; convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at an infamous women's prison in Connecticut, Piper becomes inmate #11187-424. From her first strip search to her final release, she learns to navigate this strange world with its arbitrary rules and codes, its unpredictable, even dangerous relationships. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with tokens of generosity, hard truths and simple acts of acceptance.

This isn't fiction, as I know many people have been led to believe. Instead it's the true story of a middle-class, middle-aged white woman who was sent to a women's prison for an offence she had committed ten years previously. Piper is American and therefore goes through the U.S. Criminal Justice System - it would be interesting to hear a similar story from a British woman, although that's slightly off-topic.

The theme of the book seems to be 'hey, look how petty and badly organised prison is.' She's given underwear that isn't clean, the prison store is out of handheld radios and has to cobble together quesadillas in the dormitory microwave because she doesn't like the canteen food. The thing is, for me she missed the mark because she actually made it sound kind of... fun and I'm 100% positive that wasn't her plan.

I did feel for Piper in the beginning. She was so bewildered at what was happening to her and why it was taking so long to go through the system, but then that bewilderment seemed to persist throughout her entire stay. She has a constant air of mild confusion about how she could possibly be in prison but then tries so damn hard to not say it, bless her. It's like she wants a sticker for being a Trooper. Thing is... you know, she did break the law. Without going into the morality of her crime and the concept of proportionate sentencing, it doesn't seem overly unreasonable that she went to prison for a crime she knowingly and willingly committed.

At least Piper says this herself. There's just something there that stops me from quite believing her. She doesn't actually annoy me (which is odd), but it did prevent me from taking Orange is the New Black seriously. I just wanted to pat her on the head - of course you think prison is unfair and badly organised. You were in it. You're not meant to like it. 

I do respect her a little for mentioning how much luckier she was than some of the other inmates. She received books from the outside, had visitors every weekend and was generally treated better by the guards for being white and respectable (she believes). She at least acknowledges that her time there wasn't as bad as it could have been and there were many others in much worse situations. 

I had only the most tenuous idea of what might happen next, but I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn't terrified - really, genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce or force me in a direction I didn't want to go, brave enough to stand my ground quietly. I waited an unquantifiable amount of time while trying to be brave.

However, I do object to the final chapter. It's set out as a factual analysis of everything that's wrong with the prison system, but it's actually just a rant. She believes the system doesn't work and that's absolutely fair enough, but she needs to explain why in an objective manner. She doesn't explain why the prison system is badly run and ineffective, just kind of bleats that it is. This is a light-hearted memoir that has produced an equally light-hearted TV series - you can't shove a monologue at the end and expect to change the world. 

The ending itself is kind of anti-climactic. The story doesn't go past her stepping out of the prison gates, when I wanted to know more about her reentering society and her relationship. She spent a lot of time discussing whether prison gives inmates the skills they need to find employment or just successfully function as a free person, but then doesn't explain her own experiences. It may just be because Piper had a short sentence and an excellent support system (a friend had a job already lined up for her) but it still could have been interesting.

I think this review might come across as negative when actually I did enjoy Orange is the New Black. Piper is a little uppity and preachy, but it's bearable. It's an enjoyable and accessible memoir about a minimum security women's prison; just take her social commentary with a pinch of salt.

Read other reviews of Orange is the New Black at Devouring Texts and Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.


  1. I think it really needs to be approached as a memoir not a book about prison, in which case she's entitled to her rants. Yeah, I thought, I quite like the idea of prison, I'd catch up on reading and knitting! But I guess her aim was to show how these were OK people who made mistakes and need a chance at rehabilitation. It just sounds like they (the federal justice system) don't care and would rather have everyone locked up.

    I read something elsewhere that was about US prisons as businesses, which makes you stop and think. They probably really like all that cheap labour.

    1. I agree mostly, but I think the final chapter really made it sound like the book was intended to be a commentary on the prison system. If it was meant to just be a memoir, then that chapter wasn't necessary. I do think she succeeded in showing that a lot of the inmates made mistakes and need a chance at rehabilitation, but I don't think that shows in itself that they shouldn't have been there in the first place, if that makes any sense?

      Really? That sounds interesting. I remember the author saying how one particular 'team' made some kind of product that was sold elsewhere at a profit.

  2. Interesting review. I think this book looks intriguing, but I don't know if I'll actually pick it up or not. Thanks for sharing your opinions on it!

  3. I've almost bought this at least twice in Waterstones but never quite taken that last step and chosen it over something else... (because OF COURSE I didn't leave empty handed)... I definitely want to read it though. I've never seen the TV series so that's not going to sway me either way, but it sounds like an interesting read about something I don't know much about, which is always a good reason to pick up a book! :)

  4. Hmmm, I'm not keen to read this book but I do want to catch up on the TV show.
    I think I would find the last chapter disappointing too, I don't work in the prison/rehabilitation sector but I bet it is one of those things that just can't be simplified in that way.

  5. I think that Piper is definitely not a 'likable' person, but I think that's what's interesting about memoirs. You really get to know the person writing, in and out, and whether you like them or not in the end, it's still their story.
    I do like the show, but I have to say it's a little bit more dramatic than the memoir itself.


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